T.J. Auclair is a Senior Interactive Producer for PGA.com and has covered professional golf since 1998, traveling to over 60 major championships. You can follow him on Twitter, @tjauclair.
2014 Shell Houston Open | Five players to watch
This is it, folks. The Shell Houston Open, which begins Thursday at Golf Club of Houston, is the final tune-up before next week's Masters. And, accordingly, the field is a strong one, featuring the likes of Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Angel Cabrera, Rickie Fowler, Ernie Els and more.
While the players will no doubt be focusing on the tournament at hand, the course set up at Golf Club of Houston is specifically tuned to emulate the conditions players will experience at Augusta National -- slick greens, fast running fairways and little rough.
So why are so many stars playing the week before the season's first major? Because, clearly, if you perform well in Houston, it's a confidence builder for Augusta.
Here are five players to watch this week.
5. Sergio Garcia
Best finish in 2013-14 season: Fourth at the WGC-HSBC Champions
Reason to watch: In five starts on the PGA Tour this season, Garcia has yet to finish outside of the top 16. Three of those starts have resulted in a top-10 finish, highlighted by the fourth-place showing at the WGC-HSBC Champions. Garcia will most likely be one of my five to watch next week at Augusta National, but I'm interested in seeing where his game is at this week as well. Garcia hasn't played in Houston since 2009. This will be his first start on the PGA Tour since Doral. I like the decision he's made to get into competitive mode the week before the Masters.
4. Dustin Johnson
Best finish in 2013-14 season: Won the WGC-HSBC Champions
Reason to watch: Outside of a first-round exit in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, Johnson has been absolutely on fire. Six starts, five top 10s, one win and two runner-up finishes all before the season's first major. He contends every week, it seems, and this week should be no different. He tied for fourth in Houston a year ago and then his T13 the following week at Augusta National marked his best finish in the Masters -- the only major where he has yet to record a top-10 finish.
3. Keegan Bradley
Best finish in 2013-14 season: Runner up at the Arnold Palmer Invitational
Reason to watch: Bradley is trending in the right direction at just the right time. That second-place finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational got Bradley fired up (then again, what doesn't get him fired up, right?). A tie for 10th and a tie for fourth in the last two years at Houston, respectively, tell me it's a very comfortable place for Bradley. Since he plays well so consistently, it may be hard to believe, but Bradley has not won on Tour since August of 2012 at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. He's due.
2. Hunter Mahan
Best finish in 2013-14 season: T4 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open
Reason to watch: This will be the first time Mahan tees it up since withdrawing from the Arnold Palmer Invitational in the final round, citing a hip injury. In his career, he's had four top-10s at the Shell Houston Open, highlighted by a victory in 2012. He's also had a few missed cuts in Houston, including last year when he was the defending champ. It's feast or famine for Mahan at Golf Club of Houston. Which of the two will this week bring?
1. Rory McIlroy
Best finish in 2013-14 season: T2 at the Honda Classic
Reason to watch: I think it's safe to say two things regarding McIlroy -- 1. He's back (I know, he hasn't won yet this year, but he's been close); 2. With Tiger missing the Masters, McIlroy immediately becomes the favorite (no offense, Adam Scott). After a dominating win in the 2012 PGA Championship, McIlroy looked like a player who lived for the majors. Last year, of course, wasn't his best. This year he's back on track. I want to see where his game is at this week in Houston. I think it will be on point.
Follow T.J. Auclair on Twitter, @tjauclair.